PEN concerned by cases of censorship relating to Carmen Callil and Tony Judt


Carmen Callil and Tony Judt targeted

English PEN is deeply distressed by the way two British writers have had events cancelled in New York because of views they have expressed critical of current Israeli policy.

Carmen Callil, a member of English PEN, found a French Embassy party to celebrate the launch of her widely acclaimed book about Vichy France, Bad Faith, cancelled. The embassy had been pressured behind the scenes by Jewish lobbies to cancel the party on 10 October because of a paragraph at the end of the book where she likens the ‘helpless terror’ of the Jews of Vichy to that of the occupied Palestinians.

Free Speech is difficult. It means all people hear some things they might prefer silenced. But Free Speech means that anyone can counter what is said in open debate. Pressure behind the scenes, whether on publishers or theatrical establishments or embassies is tantamount to the bully boy tactics which breed mafias or dictatorships. Nor is expressing criticism of any nation state or government or religion equivalent to a racial slur. It is the basis of the free expression which underpins our democracies.

In an incident similar to Ms Callil’s the highly respected historian, Tony Judt, author of Post War, and himself Jewish, found a lecture he was to give at the Polish Consulate in New York cancelled because of pressure exerted by Jewish groups and individuals. He withdrew from a second lecture at Manhattan College after threats that a protest by holocaust survivors would take place, branding him as a ‘state of Israel denier’. This slippage of meanings is one many holocaust survivors might themselves find offensive.

PEN condemns these attempts to stop respected writers from speaking freely, It is illogical to call for greater democracy in distant parts of the world and then allow it to be eroded at home by muzzling legitimate debate and discussion.

This attempt to silence those whose views are disagreed with by threats of violence or removal of funds has grown in these last years. The closing of Behzti by Sikh rioters, the attempt to stop the filming of Monica Ali’s Brick Lane, the evangelical Christians move against the BBC’s Jerry Springer, the Opera, the initial closure of My Name is Rachel Corrie in New York, and now in France the life threats by extremists against the right wing philosopher, Robert Redeker – all point to a rising hysteria about one of our most basic freedoms.

Guarding Free Expression means sometimes listening to what you don’t want to hear. Muzzling it means saying good-bye to centuries of struggle to create a liberal and democratic public sphere where many can co-exist in disputatious harmony.

Lisa Appignanesi

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